We Can Work It Out

October 01, 1991 5 min read

In Kresseville, Pa., a 9-year-old boy shoots and kills a 7-year-old playmate after she tells him she is better than he is at Nintendo.

While resolving student conflicts has always been part of a teacher’s job, it has never been more important. School violence is on the rise, and more and more disputes that once ended in playground shouting matches are now ending in shooting matches. In response, thousands of teachers are attempting to prevent or mediate disputes through “conflict resolution’’ programs. The goal of such programs is to help students control their anger before anyone raises a fist or reaches for a weapon.

Conflict resolution, which has its origins in collective bargaining and the peace movement of the 1960s, is a method of resolving disputes non- violently that uses a set of formal procedures to improve communication and to cool tempers. Conflict resolution programs began to spread to schools in the early 1980s, thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Community Board Program in San Francisco and Children’s Creative Response to Conflict in Nyack, N.Y.

The school programs tend to fall into three general categories: those that train teachers, those that train students, and those that use a special conflict resolution curriculum in classrooms. Some schools use a mixture of all three.

Teachers who are trained in conflict resolution techniques, usually through inservice programs or workshops, learn how to encourage angry students to state their complaints in ways that leave open the possibility of a peaceful settlement. For example, teachers learn to encourage students to use “I’’ statements, such as “I feel upset when you call me names,’' instead of hurling insults back and forth. They also engage in roleplaying exercises to learn good listening skills.

Other programs encourage students--who learn conflict resolution techniques from their teachers or from specially trained instructors--to do the mediating. When conflicts occur, the student mediators step in first. Young mediators are now dealing with everything from conflicts on the playground in elementary grades to interracial incidents and even gang fights in middle and high schools.

A third type of program, most commonly used in the upper grades, teaches conflict resolution as a separate subject or integrates it with another subject.

The Ann Arbor, Mich., public school system operates one of the most extensive programs in the country. Introduced three years ago, it now reaches all of the city’s 14,230 K-12 students and its roughly 900 teachers. At the outset, the district provided all teachers with a six- to eight-hour inservice training session that introduced them to mediation techniques and showed them how to incorporate a conflict management curriculum into their classes. More than 60 of the teachers then went on to participate in an additional 12-hour workshop, where they learned how to train students to be mediators. There are now more than 125 student mediators in the elementary grades, some 65 in the middle grades, and more than 30 in the high schools. Conflict resolution has also become part of the curriculum for students at all grade levels.

So far, the Ann Arbor program appears successful. Glenna Avery, principal of Logan Elementary School and district coordinator for the program, recalls how in the year before the program was instituted, one principal had to deal with about 320 conflicts, ranging from disputes in the lunchroom to paper fights on the bus ride home. In the first semester after the school started using student mediators, the number dropped to 27. In general, Avery says, the climate in the schools has changed: “Students are concerned about one another.’'

Conflict resolution seems to be working elsewhere, too. Richard Cohen, director of School Mediation Associates in Belmont, Mass., which has implemented more than 100 programs in schools or school systems since 1984, says, “On average, 85 percent of potentially violent incidents involving mediation end in a peaceful resolution.’'

One of the most dramatic successes occurred at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, N.M. In the fall of 1988, the school administration decided to try using conflict resolution to end the gang-related violence that was plaguing the school. With the help of two local dispute-resolution organizations, the school persuaded the leaders of the three major gangs to agree to meet for two hours twice a week for one month. The gang leaders also agreed to a set of rules for the mediation sessions, including no name calling, no weapons or acts of intimidation, and complete confidentiality. They talked about and negotiated over everything from fear for the safety of their families to unfair treatment by the school administration.

After the month’s sessions, all the gang leaders and the school’s principal signed an agreement stating that threats and name calling would stop and that gang members would try to settle future disputes peacefully. The fighting among the rival gangs soon ended, and within a month it wasn’t uncommon to see the former enemies playing soccer or giving each other “high fives.’' The gangs continued to hold mediation sessions, and the school has become a model for other local schools confronting gang activity. “Mediation is not a panacea,’' says Flora Sanchez, a former counselor at the school. “However, gang members learned that conflicts can be resolved without violence.’'

Despite such successes, most schools still don’t have me- diation programs. Although teachers don’t have the authority to establish a schoolwide program, they can make a difference as individuals, according to Cohen of School Mediation Associates. He recommends that teachers enroll in a workshop on their own and begin using or teaching mediation techniques. If they are successful, other teachers are likely to follow, and eventually the administration will come around, Cohen says.

The National Association for Mediation in Education based at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst can provide teachers with a directory of workshops, training programs for student mediators, annual conferences, curricula, and other publications. NAME, a clearinghouse on conflict resolution, lists more than 600 members worldwide, 90 percent of whom are educators. The Community Board Program and School Mediation Associates can also provide training information as well as information on schools that are currently operating mediation programs to help students “talk it out’’ instead of “taking it out’’ on each other.Sharon K. Williams

For more information on conflict resolution programs, contact: NAME, 425 Amity St., Amherst, MA 01002, (413) 545-2462; the Community Board Program, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, (415) 552-1250; or School Mediation Associates, 72 Chester Road, No. 2, Belmont, MA 02178, (617) 876-6074.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as We Can Work It Out